Award Lists & Revision Tip #3

Santa’s elves arrived in the Forest early this year!

They brought the news that WINTERGIRLS has been named a Publisher’s Weekly’s Best Book of the Year, Kirkus’ Best YA Books of 2009, Booklist’s Editor’s Choice of 2009, the 2010 Texas Tayshas High School Reading List and nominated to YALSA’s 2010 Quick Pick List! It has also been nominated to the 2011 Grand Canyon Reader Award by the very nice people in Arizona, who were kind enough to nominate…

CHAINS as well, on the Tween List for the Grand Canyon Reader Award.

Each one of those lovely lists feels like another filled stocking in front of the fire!


Many people struggle to find a way to look at the larger picture of their novel. They can line edit a page or take a chapter to their writer’s group, but managing the unwieldy novel is hard.

Here is what I do.

1. Get the largest piece of paper you can find. I go to an art supply store and buy an enormous artist’s pad for this task.

2. You need to carve out three hours of concentration time. Turn off the internet and phone. Loan your dog and children and partner to nice people who will return them fed and watered after the the three hours. Chain off the driveway so delivery trucks and friendly people who don’t understand what you mean when you say "I’m working" can’t drop in.

3. On one of your massive sheets of paper, list every chapter in your book. Describe the action in the chapter in one sentence.

4. Now prepare a separate action list. (This one will take up a couple of sheets of paper. (Did I mention that you ‘ll need to clear off the kitchen table for this? And maybe the floor?) This list will break down each chapter into the scenes. Keep it brief! F. Ex.: "MC (main character) drops homework in fish tank. Fish die. MC hides them in flower vase. Mother sees them and flips out."

5. (This is the fun part) With a colored pen or pencil, go through the detailed chapter list and make notes about the emotional arc of your MC and the important secondary characters. Also, make sure that changes in mood are properly motivated, and that conflicts are set up. You might use different colors to represent different plot elements.

6. The threads of your novel are laid out in front of you. Step back and study it. Do your characters have reasonable emotional responses to the actions in the chapters? Do the building levels of conflict appear in the right order? (I often move scenes around at this stage.) Which scenes and/or chapters can you completely remove from the story without affecting anything else? What characters can you eliminate? Do you have any characters that can be combined because they serve the same purpose in the story. (I do this a lot.)

7. By the end of this process, your papers will be covered with notes, stickies and lots of colored arrows.

8. Sit down with the giant map of your novel and apply the changes to your manuscript. I like to do this on a hard copy first, then type in the changes.

9. Don’t forget to unchain the driveway and let your loved ones back in.

Dang, this is a long blog entry. Still with me? Questions?

21 Replies to “Award Lists & Revision Tip #3”

  1. Step one for me will be actually dividing the NaNo piece into chapters. Arghhh.

    Thanks Laurie, this is a great post of advice. Much appreciated.

    Adele/Persnickety Snark

  2. Congrats on the awards and thanks for the tip! Philip Pullman uses much the same system:

    To keep track of what’s happening in a long book, what I do, after I’ve finished the first draft, is I get a very, very large piece of paper, the largest I can find, and a whole stack of very small, yellow Post-It Notes. I go through the whole thing and write down on a Post-It Note each scene I have. Will meets the bear – that’s a scene. I stick each one on the paper in the order in which they come, so I have a great big piece of paper covered with hundreds and hundreds of these little yellow stickies. Then I can move them around, you see, and they don’t blow away when you open a window. It’s easy to pick this one up and move it down there where it really ought to be and to group these two together because the same thing happens, sort of. Then get rid of that one because something similar has already happened. It’s a good way of seeing a great big map of it from above.

    I haven’t used his system, though, ’cause I’m afraid if I move everything, and it’s worse than before, I won’t be able to get it back where it was. So I go draft by draft, with long lists of scenes, and use red crayons to heighten areas of conflict.

    Now off to find a good length of chain…

  3. good tip; well-deserved praise

    Congrats! Loved both of these books; well-deserved acclaim!

    I JUST did this sort of “mapping” with my latest book, but I didn’t use the enormous artist’s pad. I used loose-leaf paper and a bunch of colored markers … it worked, but it was cumbersome and I had to keep flipping pages. Next manuscript, I’m going with the Big Pad! Great tip, thanks.

  4. Yesterday we taught the Principal/Guidance Counselor/Parents/Melinda scene in *Speak*, among a few others, and I want to praise it. With the parents, you painted Melinda into a perfect box. The kids in Sophomore English are engaged with the book, and our class discussions are excellent. Thanks again!

    Regarding writing, what I need most is advice on getting an agent, but everyone says, “Go to these websites,” or “Buy this book listing agents.” What if I don’t want to send off letters begging for attention?

  5. Great tip

    Thanks for these revision tips! I used to map out plays and stories this way before I started a manuscript- seems like it will work even better after a first draft. I’m looking forward to more tips!

  6. Wow. I love this big pad stuff. I call it the helicopter view. The approach also works great with real life motivation, prioritizing and goal setting and analyzing why you’re doing what you’re doing and whether you want to be doing what you’re doing. (That was fun to write.) 3M big charts work well. And they make a kind you can affix to the wall like big Post-It Notes.

    Your list of awards keeps growing. Maybe it’s like dishes in the sink that make babies in the night. The more you’re held up for public review, the more people have a chance to find out how well you write. Way to go.

  7. First… congrats on all the great awards for Wintergirls. I haven’t read it yet, but hope to very soon.

    Second… thanks for your revision tip. I’m right in the middle of a revision and I’m going to do this.

    Question: Other than breaking down the novel into chapters/actions… what do you do with that FIRST sheet of paper?


  8. First of all, huge congratulations! =D

    Second, what an awesome (huge and cool) way to revise. Thanks so much for sharing. I’m not sure I can use it though because I don’t know anyone kind enough to take my hubby, four kids, 11 dogs, and one macaw away (the other pets are quiet so they can stay) for three hours let alone someone who’ll return them fed and watered and everything. 😉

  9. Censorship and revisions

    Hi, Laurie! I love reading your posts. Your revision tips are great, and I plan to get a giant art book this weekend. I’m pretty excited actually.

    About the censorship: I’ll have to shoot you an email. My students are starting to organize, and I’m the proudest mama ever! Can you imagine a giant group of 10th and 12th grades fired up because they want to read? It melts my heart.

    BIG HUG!


  10. Wintergirls

    AND…I’m so happy for you about the honors for Wintergirls. You definitely deserve it! I have your signed copy in my purse right now. It’s waiting until my kids fall asleep.

    You’re amazing!

  11. Many well-deserved congrats on making those lists!

    I do something very similar when I revise, although I use sheets of copy paper that I divide into columns to help organize my chapters. I must be doing something wrong, tho, since I’m not anywhere close to successful as you are. LOL!!!

  12. Love This!

    Hi Laurie,

    This is great, and I’ll be showing it in the next class I teach. I do a similar activity, but I especially love the inclusion of the emotional arc. Thanks for sharing this!



    I do a similar kind of summary, which I call the beat sheet. I adapted it from something screenwriters do – they analyse each beat of the story by summarising it on a big sheet of paper.
    What I do for my novels is write out the beats of the action – eg Sally nearly run over, intro the three people who help her, Tom realises, etc. These are what’s important about each scene. I don’t split into chapters until after this.
    I put in emoticons so I can see at a glance whether there’s enough variety of mood, and whether the drama is building. If I’ve got multiple plot strands I use different coloured pens. All very childlike and fun! Then I keep a colour back for restructuring, which I can do easily because I can see how the threads work and whether an element is getting repetitive and bogged down. Then finally I use this as my revision plan.

    I like your idea of using really big paper – definitely will try that!

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